Beauty Is Back!

What really makes art beautiful.

Manet’s Olympia (1863)

There are signs that the hundred-years war on beauty is drawing to a close. We can date the first hostilities to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, the jagged painting of five prostitutes that he called his “first exorcism painting.” With its African masks and crude frontal nudity, the painting seems bent on exorcizing something—probably syphilis in Picasso’s case, but beauty itself for later painters and critics inspired by it. Clement Greenberg thought beauty was kitsch and argued that Jackson Pollock’s supposed “bad taste is in reality simply his willingness to be ugly in terms of contemporary taste.” Barnett Newman, the most eloquent of the Abstract Expressionists, put it bluntly in 1948: “The impulse of modern art was to destroy beauty.” In 2003, Arthur Danto, in The Abuse of Beauty, declared mission accomplished: “The discovery that something can be good art without being beautiful [was] one of the great conceptual clarifications of twentieth-century philosophy of art.”

Danto, Newman, and the rest thought that the suppression of beauty was a great liberation—a mustache on the Mona Lisa lets us all breathe more freely. Philosopher Alexander Nehamas isn’t convinced, and he’s not alone. The influential critic Dave Hickey, in The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993), decried “the continuing persistence of dated modernist conventions concerning … the inconsequence of ‘beauty’ in twentieth-century images.” In 1999, Elaine Scarry launched her own defense of beauty, On Beauty and Being Just, in which she argued (via notions like “fairness”) that our appreciation for beauty in art and nature is closely linked to our longing for justice. These thinkers aren’t calling for some nostalgic return to conventional Beauty with a capital “B”—from Boticcelli to Bouguereau—before Picasso and Pollock disfigured it. It’s the whole conception of beauty itself that, in their view, is ripe for revision.

Nehamas, in particular, thinks that beauty has been too narrowly defined and that both the pro-beauty camp and the anti-beauty camp have painted us into a tight corner. Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Artis his attempt to free us from the enclosure. Nehamas isn’t one of those reactionary critics who want us to take a fresh look at easy-on-the-eye painters like Norman Rockwell (whom Hickey, among others, has tried to rehabilitate) or Andrew Wyeth. He thinks that the whole debate about beauty has been premised on a basic confusion between the truly beautiful and the merely “good-looking.” Rembrandt’s subjects—his homely Dutch matrons or flayed hunks of beef—aren’t beautiful in any conventional way, and yet his paintings are undeniably beautiful, if by beauty we mean something larger and more elusive than accepted standards of taste. And John Currin, in works like Heartless (1997), has achieved the dubious aim of making “an ugly painting that depicts a beautiful body,” if by beautiful we mean standard pinup attractiveness.

Nehamas feels that beauty deserves a second chance because he thinks that the war on beauty has restricted what we can hope to expect from both art and life. He thinks that this restriction of beauty began long before Modernism. He notes that modern philosophy, beginning with Kant, tamed art by putting it in a cage called “the aesthetic,” an ethereal realm “completely isolated … from all relationships with the rest of the world,” including sexual desire. Schopenhauer went even further, denouncing all “amorousness”—including nude figures “calculated to excite lustful feelings in the beholder”—as a “malevolent demon,” and calling for an almost Buddhist extinguishing of all desire. Under this philosophical regime, beauty was seen as inherently dangerous and had to be policed by connoisseurs and philosophers who kept it, so to speak, in its frame. Art museums, repositories of nude statues and paintings, were meant to encourage an almost religious aesthetic “detachment.” If desire had any place in the transaction, it was a narrow one, and inappropriate at that.

Mark Twain captured the inherent cognitive dissonance of this position when he called Titian’s gorgeous Venus of Urbino, whose fingers conceal (or caress) her genitals, “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” Why the vitriol? “It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed—no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl—but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to—and there she has a right to lie, for she is a world of art, and art has its privileges.” The last phrase is ironic, of course. Twain feels (enviously) that Titian has gotten away with something by smuggling some appealing smut into the inner sanctum of art.

Nehamas is on Twain’s side and wants to banish guilt altogether from our experience of art and desire. In this short book he tries to cobble together a countertradition of philosophy, yoking Plato and Nietzsche, in which desire is considered inseparable from art, and art is reconnected to our daily lives. While conceding Schopenhauer’s sense that there’s something demonic, or at least inescapably uncertain, in our relations with beauty, Nehamas embraces the risk. He thinks that beauty—true beauty of a kind beyond mere appearance or “good looks” —is attractive precisely because you don’t know where it will lead you or how it might transform you.

Nehamas’ title comes from Stendhal’s On Love, “Beauty is only a promise of happiness,” and like Stendhal he thinks that love and beauty have a lot in common. When we are attracted to a person or to a work of art, we want to know them better. “Beauty beckons as love impels,” he writes. “The art we love is art we don’t yet fully understand.” I don’t think Nehamas is trying to sound mystical or mysterious here. He’s trying to describe, instead, how art really works on us. He takes his own three-year-long-and-counting love affair with Manet’s Olympia as an example.

“When I say, then, that I find the beauty of Manet’s Olympia overwhelming,” he writes in his chapter-length discussion of the painting, “I am not just reporting how the painting makes me feel while I am looking at it. I am saying that I literally want to devote part of my life to it—not just to look at it (although that will certainly be part of it) but also to come to know it better, to understand it and see what it accomplishes.”

This slightly obsessive pursuit takes him back to the history of the nude in European art, and the way that Manet’s portrait of a prostitute accompanied by her black maid subverts Titian’s Venus. (Early critics, recoiling from Manet’s departure from conventional notions of beauty, called Olympia “a sort of female gorilla” and thought the painting depicted “apes on a bed.”) It also takes him forward to portraits by Diane Arbus, in which the subjects’ eyes, like Olympia’s, seem “focused almost infinitesimally off to the side.” He persuades himself that Manet “painted Olympia as she might have looked to—and at—a photographer taking her picture,” and that the spooky black cat on her disheveled bed is startled by the flash. Such considerations are what Nehamas means when he says he “literally wants to devote part of my life” to Olympia; as in a happy marriage (or at least a marriage that promises to be happy), the more he learns about his companion, the more he wants to know.

Nehamas’ excursus on Manet isn’t really meant to be art criticism; it’s supposed to illustrate the unpredictable role of beauty and desire in the experience of art, and how art can take us in unexpected directions if we give ourselves over to it. Nehamas is impatient with any attempt to link art and morality, conceding that his fascination with Olympia and “vast numbers of female nudes” might not be “altogether innocent.” Scarry’s argument that “beauty promotes the sense of justice” strikes him as naive. After all, “beautiful villains, graceful outlaws, tasteful criminals, and elegant torturers are everywhere about us.” What Nehamas expects from beauty is something more like an expanded sense of the world; he wants to be emotionally overwhelmed, not morally corrected.

My only complaint about Only a Promise of Happiness is that the book is sometimes a little professorial, a little smug in its risk-taking. In its narrow focus on the tradition of the female nude at the expense of most other kinds of art, it follows a fairly safe line of argument. Who now finds Olympia shocking? If Nehamas had spent three years looking at Carl Andre’s machine-cut steel plates laid out on the ground, for example, or at a Mapplethorpe photograph of sadomasochism, we might feel that he had strayed into less familiar territory.

Even Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon asks more of us right now, 100 years after it was painted, than Olympia. Nehamas notes that with Les Demoiselles, “Picasso had begun his lifelong game of hide-and-seek with beauty,” and that in such paintings Picasso “makes nothing easy,” painting “against” his audience rather than for it. Picasso’s rejection of conventional beauty is far more drastic than Manet’s. I imagine that Nehamas, if prompted, would say that spending time with Les Demoiselles might send us to a deeper study of African masks and cultural practices, to issues of colonialism, to prostitution and the deformation of women, to Cubism, and so on. Living with the painting would mean mulling over such things. But I can’t help feeling that some sort of “taming” of the anarchic energies of these once-shocking paintings inevitably takes place in this process. All this comfortable contextualizing runs the risk of becoming a bit too domesticated, a lively seminar in intellectual connections. That’s not necessarily the best place to find the kind of aesthetic disorientation and sensory surprise that Nehamas is right to expect from great art. The happiness he’s after is something wilder and freer. And if he can’t quite rope it into words (beauty is “only a promise of happiness,” after all), that ultimate elusiveness is the central point of his sane and provocative book.